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College admissions scandal: How could rich parents gaslight their children like that?

College admissions scandal: How could rich parents gaslight their children like that?
Actress Felicity Huffman is seen inside the Edward R. Roybal Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in Los Angeles. Huffman, 56, and Lori Loughlin, 54, who starred in “Full House,” are charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud. (David McNew / AFP/Getty Images)

A new definition of “chutzpah”: Bribing a coach to get your unathletic child into an elite university and paying astronomical sums of money to have someone else take your kid’s college entrance exam, then declaring the bribes charitable contributions.

In one fell swoop, you have managed to rip off the taxpayers, make a fool of your child or, worse, turned her into a liar, and put yourself in the kind of legal jeopardy that threatens your fortune and reputation, and your very liberty.

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Nice job, you famous actors, lawyers, real estate moguls, entrepreneurs and private equity dudes charged by the federal government on Tuesday with conspiracy to commit various forms of fraud by bribing entrance exam administrators, athletic coaches and university officials, and using the facade of a charitable organization to conceal the fraud.

My biggest question: How could you gaslight your kids like this?

They were already in elite college preparatory schools. They already had tutors, counselors, psychologists — all the extra help that your hard-earned millions could buy. One accused father, William McGlashan, a senior executive at a global private equity firm, even talked about pulling strings with two members of USC’s board of directors, and still participated in this fraud, according to prosecutors.

Why weren’t your children’s own efforts enough for you? Why couldn’t you accept that your daughter or son was not Yale material? Or Wake Forest material? Or USC material?

“I have some concerns and want to fully understand the game plan to make sure we have a roadmap for success as it relates to [our daughter] and getting her into a school other than ASU!” wrote the fashion designer J. Mossimo Giannulli in an email to William “Rick” Singer, who has pleaded guilty to masterminding this years-long fraud.

Giannulli and his wife, the actress Lori Loughlin, have been charged with paying $500,000 to get both their daughters into USC as recruits of the crew team despite the fact that neither girl rowed competitively.

Poor Arizona State University. Even in a scandal tarnishing elite schools, it can’t get no respect.

J. Mossimo Giannulli, clothing designer, and his wife, actress Lori Loughlin, were charged along with nearly 50 other people in a bribery scheme in to get their children into some of the most elite schools in the country.
J. Mossimo Giannulli, clothing designer, and his wife, actress Lori Loughlin, were charged along with nearly 50 other people in a bribery scheme in to get their children into some of the most elite schools in the country. (Kathy Willens / Associated Press)

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College admissions are notoriously inconsistent and mysterious. Sometimes, there’s no rational explanation for a decision, or if there is one, it is unknowable to anyone who is not on the admissions committee. I know a young woman who was rejected by UC Santa Cruz, her backup school, but got into Yale. Anyway, most kids will bloom where they are planted. And they will generally have the satisfaction of knowing they got in on their own merits.

It’s no surprise that parents with big bucks can usually find a way in for their kids by donating huge sums of money to a university. That’s neither ethical nor moral, but at least the corruption is straightforward. It might be a little embarrassing to see your family name on a building, but I’m sure the embarrassment eventually turns to pride.

But now we see there is a third way into the elite schools, the “side door” as Singer told the parents he ensnared. You cheat, lie and buy people off. You either keep your children in the dark, or you get them to go along and cheat with you. It’s morally repugnant enough to ensnare your child in an unconscionable lie, but how will a kid cope now that the lie has been laid bare for the world to see?

How will Toby MacFarlane of Del Mar, a senior executive at a title insurance company, look his daughter in the eye after submitting an essay, as prosecutors allege, about her nonexistent soccer career?

“On the soccer or lacrosse field I am the one who looks like a boy amongst girls with my hair tied up, arms sleeveless, and blood and bruises from head to toe,” according to her application to USC. “My parents have a hard time attending my soccer matches because our opponent’s parents are always making rude remarks about that number 8 player who plays without a care for her body or anyone else’s on the field. It is true that I can be a bit intense out there on the field.”

What was Elisabeth Kimmel, the owner of a media company, thinking, when she arranged, as prosecutors allege, for her son to enroll at USC as an athlete recruited for track and field, without his knowledge? This quandary came to a head — of course it did — when her son attended his college orientation and was asked by his advisor how his track career was going. My what? Her spouse sent an alarmed email to Singer: “My son has no idea. And that’s the way we want to keep it.” Consider your secret the stuff of headlines.

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What must it do to a child when she learns that her mother has been arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit fraud, but her father, who knew about it too, is not named in the indictment. That is the situation faced by the children of actress Felicity Huffman, a defendant, and her husband, the actor William H. Macy, who is not. Last December, according to the indictment, Macy and Huffman were recorded together speaking with Singer about whether they would pay him to raise their younger daughter’s test scores, as they had done with her sister. (They did not.)

I guess the silver lining is that all these people have more than enough money to pay for good family therapy. That is, if their children are still speaking to them.

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Reading the 204-page indictment is a bracing lesson in how wealthy and privileged parents come to believe they operate outside the gravitational pull of everyday morality and ethics.

Speaking of chutzpah, let me leave you with this gem from Devin Sloane, CEO of a Los Angeles drinking water and wastewater systems company, who is alleged to have paid $250,000 to get his son into USC as a fake water polo recruit. When his son’s high school counselors questioned the admission because the school did not have a water polo team, Sloane wrote to Singer:

“The more I think about this, it is outrageous! They have no business or legal right considering all the students privacy issues to be calling and challenging/questioning [my son’s] application.”

Oh, the outrage.

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